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Police: 'Foul play' in mysterious campus death

NEED TO KNOW
  • Jasmine Benjamin, 17, found dead in study room at dorm on November 18; cause of death still pending
  • Police: 'There's foul play in this case'
  • Family first learned of Benjamin's death on Facebook
Jasmine Benjamin, a Valdosta State University freshman, was found dead in a campus study room.

As the family of a Georgia college student whose body was discovered in a study room at her dorm more than a week ago prepares for her funeral, authorities confirmed Wednesday that they suspect foul play in her death.

Jasmine Benjamin, a 17-year-old Valdosta State University freshman, was found dead on November 18 in a study room on the fifth floor of Georgia Hall. University police said Tuesday that the case is being treated as a homicide.

“It is a murder investigation,” Commander Brian Childress of the Valdosta City Police Department told HLN Wednesday. While the cause of death is still pending as authorities await a final autopsy report, Childress said, “There’s foul play in this case.”

Childress would not say exactly when police believe Benjamin was last seen alive, only stating that it was sometime on Saturday, November 17 and that details about the timeline have changed a bit during the course of the investigation.

“That’s become an important part of our investigation,” he said.

According to Childress, police do not believe Benjamin’s murder was random. He declined to elaborate on what evidence led them to that conclusion.

Initial reports indicated that Benjamin may have been dead for 12 to 15 hours before her body was found, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. However, Childress said Wednesday that police are no longer certain that is true.

Police continued to collect evidence and conduct interviews this week. Officers were seen canvassing dorms on Monday, and Childress said they have recovered some surveillance video from the campus as part of the investigation.

According to Childress, the investigation was hindered last week by the fact that many students left town for the Thanksgiving holiday, but police are interviewing many additional people now that students have returned.

“We’re doing a lot of stuff [that is] going on behind the scenes,” Childress said.

University police, Valdosta police and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation are cooperating and coordinating efforts as the investigation progresses.

Benjamin’s family is now working with an attorney and a private investigator to help them get answers about their daughter’s death. The attorney, Tom Stubbs, did not return calls seeking comment on the case Wednesday.

Private investigator Robin Martinelli told HLN her role includes speaking to the media on behalf of the family, obtaining records, interviewing potential witnesses, investigating Jasmine’s social media activity and following up on tips. She emphasized that her work will not interfere with the police investigation, and she is sharing any information she obtains with authorities.

“The police are doing a wonderful job,” Martinelli said.

Martinelli described Jasmine as “very bubbly, very energetic” and fun-loving. She had been a straight-A student at Central Gwinnett High School and was studying to become a nurse at Valdosta State. Martinelli said she hoped to follow in the footsteps of her mother, who has been a trauma nurse for 15 years.

According to Martinelli, Benjamin and her mother were extremely close. She also had two younger sisters. The family was holding visitation for Benjamin on Wednesday, with a funeral scheduled for Thursday night at 6 p.m. at the Gwinnett Chapel in Lawrenceville.

Benjamin’s mother and stepfather had told WGCL they were unhappy that the university did not contact them directly to inform them of her death and said they first learned about what happened from a friend’s Facebook post.

University Director of Communications Thressea Boyd provided the following statement on the school’s handling of the notification process: “In regards to death of a student, it is Valdosta State University's standard procedure to contact the law enforcement agency within the hometown of the student's parents or next of kin. The Valdosta State Police Department notified the Gwinnett County Police Department and two officers from this agency made the official notification to Jasmine's parents.”

Martinelli said it was sad that the family learned of Benjamin’s death online before the officers arrived to give the official notification but not unexpected given the way information spreads through social media.

Anyone with information regarding Jasmine Benjamin’s death is asked to call the Valdosta State University Police Department at 229-333-7816 or the Valdosta Police Department at 229-293-3091.  

For the latest crime and justice news, watch Nancy Grace weeknights at 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. ET on HLN.

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